By Marianne Gouveia, founder of EricsHouse For many of us who have lost a loved one, the months of November and December can trigger great sadness and sorrow. As...
By Marianne Gouveia, founder of EricsHouse
For many of us who have lost a loved one, the months of November and December can trigger great sadness and sorrow. As the Founder of EricsHouse—a non-profit to help people heal after traumatic loss, I feel myself tensing up with the holidays approaching, my mood sinking, and an urge to stay occupied with work and mindless busy tasks. I hate thinking about that empty seat, wishing I could have my son Eric at the holiday table one last time. I think about what gifts he might put on his Christmas list and how wonderful it might be to kiss him, to hug him, to hear his great belly laugh . . . just one more time.
Grief during the Holidays
Eric struggled with opioid addiction. He fought hard for sobriety, but one day he became overwhelmed by his addiction and lost hope. In February of 2017, he made the fatal decision to end his life by suicide. In the last four years, I have learned so much about survival, sorrow, and sadness, about loss and emptiness, about sharing and gratitude, and about finding hope.
Holidays are difficult times for any griever. In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, feelings of loss, worry, and isolation are rampant in every household. For people celebrating the holidays without their loved ones, sorrow runs high. Dr. Alan Wolfelt, an internationally recognized grief expert and advocate for EricsHouse, offers some ways in which we can find hope during the holidays:
Talk about your grief
We think if we avoid talking about our grief our pain will go away. On the contrary, talking about your grief helps you heal and process complicated emotions. Holding it in causes it to fester. Talk to friends who will listen without judgement and help make you feel understood.
Talk about your loved one
Love does not end with death. While the holidays might create triggers for you that cause sadness and hurt, there are also triggers that can create positive memories and perhaps even laughter as you remember your loved one. Family and friend may mistakenly think by avoiding talking about your loved one they will save you from falling into grief. Intentionally plan ways in which you can bring those happy memories to the dinner table to share with others. Say their name.
Respect your physical and psychological limits
Grief left me exhausted. Preparing a large meal for my extended family was not in the cards that first year. I let someone else do all the work so I could respect my grief. I needed to miss Eric and be sad, that he was not here. I gave myself permission to mourn him and eliminate unnecessary stress, and created a plan to do that. In retrospect, I learned the best way to mourn Eric was to allow myself to lean right into the pain — to experience it —and create an environment where I didn’t have to avoid it or pretend everything was ok.
Give yourself permission to create what you need during the season —do only what soothes you and gives you comfort. If you are stressing something, eliminate it and replace it with something that supports your journey toward healing.
As the holidays approach, we suggest you develop a survival plan. A plan you create around activities that will make you feel better. You don’t have to “stick to the plan,” nothing is set in stone, but it can help you think through what you want to do, don’t want to do, and be mentally and emotionally prepared. This might include:
Being with people who want to be with you, who acknowledge and support you, and respect your sense of loss. Good listeners are always a good choice here.
If you have family traditions, decide which ones to continue and which ones to skip this year. This gives you a way to anticipate triggers rather than get caught off-guard. Be sure to give yourself permission to modify your normal approach, people will understand.
If you wish to express your faith, the holidays are a good time to do so. Often, after a loss, we find a renewed sense of faith or a new belief structure. Allow yourself to express your beliefs, it can lead to transformative self-discovery in the face of loss.
Often people cope with loss and grief during the holiday by increasing consumption of substances like alcohol and pain killers. We imbibe because we hope it will make the pain go away. The opposite is true. Drugs and alcohol actually prolong the mourning process and compromise our healing. If maintaining your sobriety is a special challenge for you during the holidays, you may want to reinforce your commitment to your survival plan:
Focus on your successes. Celebrate your sobriety. Think about how good you feel without drugs and alcohol. Building a sober life, especially after a terrible loss, isn’t always easy and doesn’t happen overnight. Take it minute-by-minute and day-by-day.
Give yourself permission. Stay away from events and people that cause unnecessary stress in your life or create temptation to compromise your sobriety. Substitute activities that reward you or honor your loved one.
Stay active. Give your body physical exercise, breathe deeply, get some sun and fresh air. Give yourself permission to do what you enjoy and get plenty of rest to keep the stress away.
BYOD – Bring you own (healthy) drink if you are around others that are drinking.
Be with like-minded friends: Keep your sober friends close with texts or phone calls and remember to draw upon your higher power. Surround yourself with positivity and you will succeed!
The holidays can present difficult challenges for the griever, but they also present an opportunity to further integrate our losses and move forward in our grief journey. Prepare yourself and stack the deck to enable a hope-filled, self-loving experience that celebrates the life of your loved one, the beautiful memories of holidays past, and journey toward meaningful, fulfilling future holidays.
Marianne Gouveia is the Founder of EricsHouse Inc, a nonprofit specializing in grief support with a specialization in suicide and substance-related losses. For more information, visit www.ericshouse.org or call 855-894-5658.